Saturday, October 6, 2012

Does it matter what mindset we do our practices with?; Gregor Maehle moving into the forest

For a while earlier today, I was toying with the idea of having a more provocative title for this post, something along the lines of "Are Ashtangis more prone to self-flagellation than non-Ashtangis?" But after googling "self-flagellation" and seeing a whole bunch of images of very bloodied and flagellated bodies, I decided that the Ashtanga practice is definitely nowhere near that end of the sado-masochism spectrum, and using such a title will probably only add to Ashtanga's already not-so-good rep. Besides, the notion of self-flagellation has such strong religious overtones that it would probably be both highly disrespectful to these religious traditions and also highly distorting to Ashtanga to talk about our practice through such religious lenses.

So I decided not to use the term "self-flagellation." But the religious overtone and analogy is nevertheless still there; jokes about Ashtanga being a church or religion aside, it does seem to me that now and then, Ashtangis do succumb (is this the appropriate word to use here?) to this tendency to be really hard on themselves when talking about what they did or did not do during practice, or about whether they made it to the mat on certain days. To be sure, not every Ashtangi in the cybershala or in the "real" world is hard on themselves; more often than not, people seem to talk about their practices with a sort of cyber-shrug, mediated by a good dose of an "it is what it is, let's try this again tomorrow" attitude.

But now and then--and perhaps this is happening more now, with the change in the seasons, and the anxiety that this tends to induce in our lives both on and off the mat--I would come across blog posts in which the Ashtangi in question seems to be expressing a certain kind of angst, a certain feeling of pain or frustration at not having done enough in practice recently, or at having let certain lifestyle habits (eating too much, drinking too much, sleeping too much or too little) get in the way of a "better" practice. Such blog posts often have a certain overarching tone of "I'm not good enough for X or I'm not good enough to be X because I did not practice good enough today/this past week/this past month", where "X" could be "a good Ashtangi", "self-realized", "self-evolved", or whatever one's preferred spiritual archetype might be.

Maybe I'm reading too much into what people write on their blogs. Or maybe having this kind of "not good enough" mentality towards our practices isn't necessarily a bad thing, in the bigger scheme of things: After all, if we cannot see that there are things in our lives that need working on (and are thus "not good enough"), we probably won't be able to awaken the desire to stoke the fire of practice, dig deep within ourselves, and burn off the impurities, physical and spiritual, that are holding us back from living in a more self-realized manner.

But at the same time, I also can't help wondering how much of this "not good enough" mentality is the product of a healthy striving towards greater self-perfection, and how much of it is a sort of Judeo-Christian throwback. Is it possible that many Ashtangis practice with a Judeo-Christian mindset, the mindset that says that "If I don't accomplish A today, I will never be good/evolved/sacred enough"? ("A" could range from "doing full primary", "binding in Mari D", "grabbing the heels in Kapo", to "successfully inhaling through my anus and thus having incontrovertible proof that I am an accomplished master of mula bandha", to "having an out-of-body experience in savasana where I take a brief trip to the Brahma heavens and have tea with Krishna before heading back to the humdrum reality of my earthly body". Really, the possibilities are endless here...)

Or maybe there is nothing wrong even with practicing with a Judeo-Christian mindset. Frankly, I find this proposition a little hard to swallow: If one is always practicing with a "I'm not good enough unless I accomplish A" attitude, doesn't this also suggest that one's practice is motivated by fear, a fear that one will never measure up or be good enough? And if the starting point is fear, what can we expect the end point to be?

But maybe, when all is said and done, it really doesn't matter what it is that gets you on the mat (even if it is fear); what's important is that you get on the mat, do your practice. And then the practice will work its magic. And then all is coming. What does it matter if you approach the practice with a Judeo-Christian or Buddhist or Taoist or Hindu or Atheistic mindset? Whatever your starting mindset, the practice will (or at any rate, should) alchemize it into... something better?

So maybe it's all good, after all: Nothing really matters, so long as you practice. Which means I basically just wrote a post about... nothing. Oh well, thanks for reading. But if any of this makes any sense to you and you have something to say, I'll love to hear from you, as always.                  


In the meantime, let's move to a less weighty topic. Gregor Maehle recently announced on his Facebook page that because he and his wife Monica are now over 50 years of age and have reached the Forest-dweller (Vanaprastha) stage of life (in accordance with the four-ashramas (stages of life) model detailed in the Vedas), they will be selling their home in Perth, Australia, and moving into the forest on the Australian east coast to take up residence there.

But it also appears that he is not planning to become a forest-dwelling hermit who has cut off all ties with the world. On the contrary: Again according to his Facebook page, he has plans to establish a yoga retreat center in the forest "at some point in an unknown future", and also has plans to expand his teaching activities worldwide; see his Facebook page for more details on all this. 

Which is great news, from my own very selfish point of view. Although I have never met him before, I have benefited greatly from the wisdom that he has imparted in his books, especially the one on the Intermediate Series (see previous post for more details on this book). In particular, his detailed instructions on Kapotasana did much to see me through my early struggles with this formidable pose. Hopefully, I will be able to study with him in person one day, somewhere in the world. Perhaps, when my financial and immigration situation becomes more established, I may even go to his retreat center in the eastern Australian forest :-) 

I also can't help wondering if Maehle's move will set in motion a new trend among senior Ashtanga teachers. Maybe more senior teachers will follow his lead, and move into a forest nearest to them when they reach a certain age? Ha! Can you imagine Kino and Tim living in the Florida Everglades, and maybe setting up a retreat center there among the alligators? Final yogic test for students in their Everglades Yoga Intensive: Perform Nakrasana (Crocodile pose) next to a live alligator, and see if you can fool the alligator into thinking you are one of them (or get eaten alive).          


  1. hi nobel, great post. i think mindset does matter, but it is not something that you can consciously change. the mindset i bring to the mat is the same one that i bring to other parts of my life (even if i dont always see it that way). i was afraid to try the practice at all unless i felt that i could finish primary series in a reasonable amount of time. (which now seems a bit ridiculous, and day one of practice told me so in no uncertain terms!) yes, even after a short time, practice can and/or does affect that mindset (for me at least). but it slow going. i am not sure how one who is raised here, with that judeo-christian mindset (even if not consciously raised in those is everywhere in the culture), would manage to start practicing with a different mindset. that would seem miraculous to me..and maybe those people are not needing ashtanga then?

    i think it is the western mindset that needs ashtanga more, to transform the ideas of failing and succeeding in practice into just the idea of observing what happens each day.

    1. Yes, the Judeo-Christian mindset, along with the Protestant work ethic, is everywhere in the culture. After thinking about it a little more, I have also come to the conclusion that it is alright to come to the mat with a Judeo-Christian (or any other) mindset, so long as one is willing to do the practice wholeheartedly, and allow it to transform one in the process.

      "that would seem miraculous to me..and maybe those people are not needing ashtanga then?"

      Interesting point. Actually, in Asia, where I grew up, there is this thing called the Confucian mindset, which is very similar in many ways to the Judeo-Christian mindset, with its emphasis on hard work and meritocratic achievement, and imposition of feelings of shame on those who don't measure up. Which is probably why in traditionally Confucian countries like South Korea, so many people are Christians (compatibility/convertibility between the two mindsets making conversion relatively easy and pain-free).

      Well, I'm not sure where this is going... maybe this means that Ashtanga is about to become really big in East Asia? ;-)

  2. 50 years? That only works if you have kids early. They're supposed to meet their son's son.

  3. dunno, I think the idea of moving off the grid is one that my husband and I have entertained quite a bit:) visions of organic veggy gardens and leasurly practice:) we of course would bring our daughter(18) but I guess that's not the point is it? supposed to be just the 2 of you:) interesting. I quite like the Isle of Sark of the coast of England, no cars:)I'll be 50 in 4 yrs, I will let you know what goes down:) haha:)

    1. Isle of Sark? Never heard of it before. Any relation to Cutty Sark (the whiskey)? :-)

      Organic veggie gardens and leisurely practices sound wonderful. But I'm really not sure if your daughter would be that interested in living off the grid, if she's what I think a conventional 18-year-old is like :-)

    2. I thought that as well, about the whiskey:) not sure:)

  4. I have some thoughts on this subject- This idea of "getting better" is of course influenced by religious beliefs. And we all incorporate and express those beliefs. I am an artist, physician and ashtangi, or I am doing those things but am neither of them.

    I am consciousness, and the action of consciousness, of all that exists, is to continuously be exploring, continuously expanding and simultaneously continuously folding in.

    I am always in a state of becoming, widening my abilities on my guitar, on the mat, wherever, but that does not mean that I will be better or more pure, or anything, in the future, perhaps different, that´s all.

    Walt Whitman

    "There was never any more inception than there is now,
    Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
    And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
    Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

    Urge and urge and urge,
    Always the procreant urge of the world."

    1. Thanks for sharing, Chrristoph. These lines from Whitman are so insightful and timely. Yes, ultimately, we are never more anything than what we are now, because without the now, there is nothing.

    2. Something else comes to my mind, a little story:

      About two years ago, for no apparent reason, I was not able to do Trikonasana anymore, not on the left side. There was the most peculiar sensation down my leg, my hand was quite far away from my left toe, whereas on the right side I could do it as easily as always. All through the rest of the practice there was nothing at all similar to that.
      Everyday I tried a different approach, with the objective to hold my toe again. I was evaluating my aligment. The next day I thought: "Well, perhaps I am too serious, try to be as playful as a young cat!";-), then I was again learning anatomy etc..
      But there was no change, always the same annoying sensation.
      Until after 3 weeks, just a moment before bending down again, trying to reach my toe, I had the thoughts:
      "F... it. perhaps I will never be able to do that again. Who cares? It does not make me a better person in any way, and it is not at all important for other people, or in the large picture of things."
      And yes, the magic of self acceptance! The moment I accepted "What Is" I allowed genuine change to occur. I was able to bend down again, with ease.

      "This is one of the more troubling truths that most yoga practitioners have to deal with. No amount of asana or pranayama or meditation practice will make you a better person or hasten your development. Nothing will. For there is nothing better than being what you are, right now." Matthew Sweeney

    3. What Sweeney says here is true. Apparently, even attaining Samadhi doesn't necessarily make you a better person:

      Your experience with Trikonasana is very interesting and refreshing. I definitely haven't gotten to the point where I can actually tell myself that it doesn't matter if I can never do X-asana again. I just keep trying (and sometimes try too hard...).

    4. :-)

      Also, I do not think that self acceptance is an ongoing expression, once you have acquired it.

      In my own experience, with a certain amount of self acceptance, the motivation for practice also changes.

      Many humans seek to express in a spiritual manner, in our forgetting of who we are we have created an idea, a concept of spirituality, which we believe is outside of ourselves, a thing that we me must be pursuing and moving in the direction of grasping and holding.

      For me, the payoff is the practice itself. I am just enjoying myself.
      I do not hope for transformation, nor do I know how to surrender.

      There is no void inside me anymore I need to fill with the third interpretation of the Sutras rather I read the manual of my new synthesizer. :-)

    5. "the payoff is the practice itself."

      This is true, and I feel more and more able to relate to it over time. Actually, I have felt this to be true, even way back when I first started yoga. Even though I all those fancy poses intriguing (and still do), what really gets me to practice is that wonderful feeling I have during and after practice, that felling of having tried very hard and having the practice wring me out like a washcloth on so many levels. So I guess you can say that I approach new postures or new challenges in my asana practice the way you read the manual of your new synthesizer; with this child-like, "everything is familiar and yet so new" sense of anticipation.

    6. I remember being 7 years old, sitting on the floor with my mum and putting my legs behind my head, just for the fun of it!

      It is so wonderful to have/be a body!;-)

      And of course I am always excited to learn new asanas!

    7. Yes, it is so wonderful to be embodied :-)

  5. I agree with your comment, Nobel, that the key is just to practice, and to do it wholeheartedly and with an attitude of commitment and surrender, no matter the mindset or background. The surrender part may really take some time for some of us. For me, it still tends to ebb and flow. I practice anyway. And very good recall of the book - I've relied on that 2d series book a lot as well.

    1. Yes, Kristen, the surrender part does takes some time. And what makes it worse (or better, depending on your point of view) is that there is really no way to "practice" or "try to" surrender. You either surrender or you don't. It's like what Yoda said: "Do, or do not. There is no try."

      Here's Patrick's post about this:

  6. Thanks for this super-interesting post and discussion!! I would suggest that material/physical goal-oriented asana fits neatly into with Western (American/British/Australian etc) culture that is obsessed with accomplishing goals, displaying physical prowess, and physical or material gratification. House, car, clothes, X pose, X practice days - it's all kind of the same mentality of quantifying our self-worth. Maybe the Judeo-Christian thing kicks in with the work-ethic-guilt complex: "if I can't do Pose X it must be because I'm not working hard enough." Either way, the over-obsession with asana is probably unhealthy.

    I would venture to suggest that Ashtangis are particularly prone to that obsession a) because the series follow a linear progression which feeds into our goal-oriented minds (and attracts a lot of goal-oriented people); b) because the practice requires a degree of physical and time commitment that is immensely hard for householders to fulfill, so you kind of set yourself up for "not being good enough", and c) because the other 7 limbs of yoga are not generally taught in Ashtanga in a way that holistically integrates with an asana practice - Ashtanga the way it is often taught / practiced is an asana system but not really a complete "yoga" system...

    1. Yes, I think that the Protestant work ethic has a lot to do with this whole mindset of seeing poses as just one more thing to acquire or achieve. I think it is definitely no coincidence that Ashtanga, as I observe it, seems to be a lot more popular in the west than in most parts of Asia. For one, I do notice that most of the authorized and certified teachers hail from North America, Europe and Australia. But this is slowly changing, because as many East Asian societies get more materialistic and "Americanized", more people in these societies will also see a need for a practice that is spiritual and yet also relates to their linear notions of progress. Hence the rising popularity of Ashtanga in China and many places in East Asia. This, at any rate, is my theory.

      But having said all this, I also think that it speaks volumes about the wisdom of Guruji that he was able to recognize this materialistic streak in western culture, and kind of use it to get people's feet into the spirituality door by introducing the Ashtanga practice to them.

      Everything you said about (a), (b) and (c) is true. But I don't think that is necessarily a bad thing. For one thing, because the other 7 limbs are not explicitly taught (at least at the beginning), Ashtanga comes across as being more approachable to certain kinds of people; basically, people like me who don't like being preached at (although, as you can see from this blog, I have no compunctions about preaching at people myself :-)). So, well, I don't really think it is not a complete "yoga" system just because the other 7 limbs are not explicitly or directly taught right at the beginning. At any rate, I really don't think it is possible to go beyond a certain point in the practice if one does not at least make some kind of effort to incorporate the other seven limbs into one's practice, both on and off the mat. But this is an entire post in itself, so I'll leave it at this :-)

    2. Yes, I realised after I hit 'post' that the last part might come off as sounding negative - it wasn't meant to be, just analytical. In fact, most modern asana, regardless of which kind, is taught in this stand-alone way and (depending on the teacher and the student) this becomes a 'vehicle' for deeper introspection and introducing philosophical concepts, or not. As you say, very appropriate to the modern sceptical Western mind. I didn't mean to suggest that Ashtanga itself is not a "complete system" - just that the way it is mostly taught/practiced - like almost all modern hatha yoga - focuses extensively on just 1 limb. Actually when taught well, the emphasis on breathing, bandhas and drishti are significantly broader than some yoga styles out there!